Remember the days of eating sugary breakfast cereals while watching Saturday morning cartoons? Remember the anticipation of playing video games for hours until your thumbs had blisters? Remember the fascination of flipping through the colorful pages of a comic book…or the fear and excitement of watching an 80s horror movie? Welcome to the world of Matthew Skiff, one of the most sought after t-shirt illustrators in the game right now. We’ve been huge fans of his work since the days of Emptees, so we were excited to get a chance to interview him.
This year, you’ve worked on a lot of huge projects, from skateboards to t-shirts. What was your most challenging project? How do you juggle so many different things and still keep your sanity?
It’s so difficult. Sometimes I overbook myself just for fear of not having enough projects to work on during the month, so I am constantly working on a bunch of projects at one time. It’s almost a 2nd job trying to keep track of everything. I wake up, and before I even start drawing, I spend time looking at my calendar, seeing what projects I am working on or need to start, look over different checklists and answer emails. That’s a couple of hours of work before even picking up a pencil or opening up a drawing program.
The most challenging project this year I wrapped up at the end of November. It was a 10 board series for Goodbie. That came right in the middle of my family coming to visit me, Halloween and up until Thanksgiving. On top of that, having to juggle a few other projects. With a series like that, with so many designs, a lot of trial and error happens in the sketching phase. Seeing what designs work with each other, and what doesn’t. And then, once all the designs are finished, there is still more work to do. Mocking up boards, turning the graphics into a few t-shirt designs and wheel designs, it’s a pretty big undertaking. But the end result is something I am very proud of.
It was very intimidated at the beginning (and still am). There is so much great art going through these galleries, and so many great artists. Having my work in the same space as theirs, it forced me to step my game up. My first two prints were trial and error. I had my good friend Luke help me out with printing them, and he hadn’t done many screen printed posters himself, so it was a learning experience for both of us. My first print, “Three”, for the Glow in the Dark Bottleneck Show was a huge success. It sold out the opening night of the show, and then when I sold my AP’s a couple days later, they sold out in minutes.
My 2nd print, was a Star Trek for the Bad Robot show at Gallery 1988. That one bombed, miserably, I think I only sold one. I think its failure was a mix between the subject matter not being very interesting, and my piece sitting next to a lot of other great Star Trek pieces, it didn’t really hold it’s own. I think that if it was in a different show, and it was the only Star Trek print, it might have done a little better.
My 3 Ninja’s print for the “We Mad Them Do It” show at Gallery 1988 did a lot better. It sold out before the show ended, and my AP’s sold out in less than a week. Ending the 2013 year, I had a The Thing print in Gallery 1988’s Crazy 4 Cult show, and that piece sold out in 3 days. Let’s hope the AP’s sell just as well.
As for the experience with both Galleries, it has been incredibly fun, and it has given me a lot of great exposure. Luckily, living in LA, I was able to attend a couple of the Gallery 1988 shows, and it’s always exciting to see my work in that type of setting. One day I’ll make it out to NY for a Bottleneck show.
3D printing is opening up an infinite world of possibilities for creativity. Since, you’re a big fan of toys and action figures, will you ever use this technology to create your own toy? Or maybe recreate your favorite childhood action figures?
This is something that I have been thinking about for a while. Although I wasn’t involved in the process entirely from beginning to end, but Ross (owner of 8-Bit Zombie) kept me up to date on the production of the Thrashor toy. I believe 3D printing had a part in the making of that toy, and that gave me an insight into how that all works. I am a HUGE fan of toys/action figures, and it has been one of my lifelong goals to be able to make my own toys, and Thrashor was the first step in the direction and I hope that I can branch off and create something unique of my own. 3D technology makes this goal easier to reach.
The branding you did for High Supply is a little bit different from your usual illustrative style. Did they ask to keep the design simple or did you just decide to change your style up?
It’s all a case by case basis. Some designs require heavily illustrative designs, and others require simplicity. Each route has their own positives and negatives. I love working on branding, and any time I can work on something clean and bold like that, I jump at the chance. Specifically for High Supply, they were going after the Streetwear and Sneakerhead crowd, and luckily that is the kind of stuff I am in to, so it made things a bit easier.
Wacom recently married the Cintiq with an Android tablet, giving birth to the Cintiq Companion Hybrid Creative tablet. Do you plan on getting it? How important do you think a tablet, or any kind of hardware/software, is in making an illustration?
I would love to get one of those Cintique Companions. I have been working on an Intuos for years, I have been dying to try a tablet with a screen I can actually drawn on. I feel it might make the whole drawing/designing process feel a bit more analog, and that is something that I have really been missing. The tools do play a big part on how the final design turns out, but that’s not to say that if you can’t draw, the program and drawing tablet will compensate for you. You have to know the basics, so you can use these things to it’s full advantage.
That is a tough question to answer. Once the machines start being able to create art with as much heart and soul as us humans do, that’s when Skynet has won and Judgement Day will be upon us (Terminator, ha). Art is such a personal experience, that I don’t think any form of artificial intelligence could ever make human created art obsolete. Even now, you can look at an illustration and tell if the illustrators heart was in it or not. That’s what I think “robot” art will be, just images without any soul or personality to them.
What are the biggest mistakes novice illustrators and brand owners make? What are the biggest time wasters?
One of the biggest mistakes a novice illustrator could do is try and cut corners. That means tracing other peoples work and claiming it to be their own, but also stealing another persons illustration style. You want to make yourself stand out, and in illustration, your own style and personality is what people are hiring you for. Being “inspired” by another artists is a whole different thing however.
For brand owners as well, I see a lot of them trying to cut corners and not wanting to put the money, effort and time into the products they are producing. Quality shirts, quality websites and quality photos go a long way when trying to sell a t-shirt. Yes, the design is important, but how you display and sell the design is almost as important. There are some brands out there that are super popular, have terrible designs, but they know how to present it so it gets people interested.
I think illustrators and brand owners waste too much time looking at the competition, and trying to mimic what has already been done. There is so much repetitiveness in the t-shirt industry (myself included) and both the illustrators and brand owners are afraid to try new things in fear of it not succeeding.
What are your favorite resources for illustration and design? If people had to teach themselves, what would you suggest they use?
Tumblr has become a great resource for inspiration. I follow a lot of my favorite illustrators and designers on there. They either use that to post their own work, or things that inspire them, and that ends up inspiring me. Other than that, I have a ton of books from my favorite illustrators and artists that I constantly look through. Artists like Jim Phillips, Frank Frazetta, Jack Davis, and a bunch of others. There is something different about looking at art in a book, as opposed to on the computer screen, it feels a bit more like research.
If you are trying to teach yourself how to draw, the best thing you can do is to study all the great artists, or your favorite artists, and see how they draw. I have a bunch of text books from college that I still use today that deal with life drawing. But when all else fails, I always go to my favorite book, “How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way” to brush up on my skills.
Emptees was one of your biggest modes of self-promotion. If you were to train me for four weeks for a t-shirt competition, and had a million dollars on the line, what would the training look like? What if I trained for eight weeks?
The first thing I would do would be to show you what works and what doesn’t work for a shirt design. Sometimes the most beautiful illustration can look like crap on a shirt. Simplicity is the key when it comes to a really great shirt design, and finding that balance between illustration and simplicity will make a really great shirt design! Other topics would include things like working with limited colors, picking the right shirt color for the design, color separations, etc. These are all things that are important when designing a t-shirt, on top of actually illustrating and designing it. The extra time would be spent going over everything until it becomes annoying!
You’ve done a lot of awesome t-shirt designs for clothing brands. I wonder why you haven’t started your own brand yet?
Yeah, that has been on the list for years now. I have some things in the works, but it’s tougher thank you would think. If I am going to do something like that, I want to do it the right way. And taking a step in the direction and having it not succeed, is quite scary. But it will happen, we’ll see what this next year brings. In the meantime, I have been testing the waters with some small shirt releases on my own website with some success. I will be dropping a bunch more stuff in the coming months.
Where do you see yourself in the year 2020? Will you ever get into animation, video games, or comic books?
I hope I am not still freelancing by then…i’ll be 34-35? I don’t know if I could stay sane by then. It would be awesome to have my own cartoon in the works, that would be the ultimate dream. I am such a huge fan of cartoons, and it’d be awesome to create something like that, that inspires kids the way the cartoons I watched as a kid inspired me. And then naturally, I’d want an action figure line to follow for the cartoon.
Thanks a lot for the interview. If you like his work, and want to see more, visit his website http://www.ithew.com/